Why does my husband always want to stop and look for fish when we pass a river? He loves to peer into the depths and point out dark shapes that are not immediately visible to me. I asked him why, and he told me: ‘Because the fish are what make the river alive.’
I hadn’t thought of that. Of course water itself doesn’t live: it gives life to the birds and animals that make it their home. The fish and ducks are two a penny; you’re really lucky to see a grey heron stalking the margins, and even luckier to see the electric blue flash of a kingfisher darting past. All of them, though, tell you that the river is sustaining life.
I do think of a river as being alive, but it’s the movement of the water itself that I find most attractive. While Chris looks for waving fins and tails, I stand and stare at the patterns created by the flow, the swirling shape of the water around obstacles and the sparkle of reflected sunlight on the surface.
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, ‘You cannot step twice into the same stream.’ Whether or not you think of that metaphorically, as a comment on the flow of time and circumstances, it’s literally true: a river is always shifting, always pushing on from the source to the sea, always showing new patterns. Jesus talked about ‘rivers of living water’, too, in a spiritual sense, and I like to think he meant a bubbling, ever-flowing source of energy. For me, that energy is what makes a river ‘alive’.
Moving from Southampton 25 years ago—a city built on two major rivers, the Test and the Itchen (with the smaller Hamble to the south-east, where the wreck of Henry V’s flagship the Grace Dieu still lies)—I arrived in a town with none. These days, with flooding so much more of a threat than it used to be, that might be considered a blessing, but I can’t help feeling that a riverless town lacks soul.
Still, we don’t have to go far to find plenty of beautiful waterways—sparkling on the surface and full of fish beneath. And when we find them, we just have to stand and stare.